Encounter with Gregory Corso
I’ve been reading Gregory Corso and finally beginning to appreciate his writing. Sometimes it takes me so long to see what is right in front of me, to recognize what should be familiar. I never met Corso. I sort of met Allen Ginsberg in the eighties, but that was more of a missed encounter and a missed opportunity to play back-up when he read in Cleveland. I'm still bummed out about that. In the early nineties I saw William Burroughs at a restaurant in Kansas City. I'd been told that he ate there at a certain time on a certain day every week when he came in for his Methadone treatment. I had considered showing him a poem I had written using a cut up method, but when I saw him I didn't want to bother him. This sort of non-encounter with writers and artists I admire is a pattern with me.
The following account is based on notes I took about a memorial service for Gregory Corso that I attended in January, 2001.
Corso died a week ago and we are burying him today. I am not literally digging any dirt, I am not even attending the burial, but I was at the memorial sevice this morning at Our Lady of Pompei in the Village. Marianna said to me that her brother was going to play at the memorial and I should go. "It’ll be fun," she said. I said, "They’ll put the 'fun' back in 'funeral'."
So I went to the church on Carmine and 6th Avenue. There were people gathered on the steps and I recognized Ed Sanders, who I'd met years ago. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be dogging celebrities who’d come to mourn a friend. Sanders sat a few pews ahead of me. I turned around and saw -- I’m pretty sure -- Debra Harry a few pews behind me and then I knew this was a big deal, an Event, and I sat there in the pew and I wondered why I was there, and why I am Here, and I also wondered why the corpse was There.
Corso was in a casket in the center aisle. Maybe the key to where Here is was There in that casket -- the Where and the Why of Here --why I am here, in this church. Part of it was to meet Amram, to shmooze. But I couldn’t do it --shmooze -- it wasn’t the place. What is it to bury a Poet in the Church? Do the atoms of his substance change the soil? Does the dirt sanctify the corpse, or does the corpse sanctify the dirt? What is it, I wondered, to bury his poems in the doctrines of the Church, the paintings of Heaven and Hell and Last Judgment, the Eucharist, the Resurrection? Live and die in your art.
Amram accompanied a female singer I did not recognize. It was a traditional hymn, I think. The organ played and Amram played a kind of flute. The priest spoke, saying this is an unusual congregation, and got a laugh from the old beats and hippies, and middle-aged punks. He called Gregory a free spirit, made in the image of God and the Holy Spirit, and said each of us is free to do what God wills for us, and it is only for God to judge how we did that.
While the priest was talking a woman with dreadlocks came in and caused a disturbance, arguing with a man as she pushed him out of the church. We could hear her screaming at him outside. The priest said, "Don’t worry about that, I told you this is an unusual congregation."
Corso’s roommate -- one of his old roommates -- got up and delivered a eulogy, saying Gregory was the easiest person to live with he’d ever met, although unpredictable. This friend of Corso, whoever he was, had long gray hair tied in a ponytail. He said he met Corso in the 70s when he’d invited him to appear on a cable TV show he had. He asked Corso to autograph something for his wife and Corso wrote, “Will you suck my dick?” I guessed this guy only told the story to let a bit of the free spirit of Corso loose in the Church.
Amram spoke a little and said that Corso had been baptized in this church, it was his mother's church, and he said that many of us came from all over the world to be here in Greenwich Village, but Corso was from here. This impressed me somehow. Corso had gone to jail when he was a kid, and taught himself literature in jail, and became a poet. He was befriended by Ginsberg and Kerouac and Burroughs and later on knew Patti Smith and Ed Sanders. This was as close to the NY scene as I’ve been -- the imaginary scene -- the literary fantasy beatpunk daydream. Here.
That unknown woman sang again, a song about a strange boy who came and taught her the importance of loving and being loved. Nature Boy.
As the pallbearers carried the coffin out I saw that Debra Harry was weeping. I lagged behind as the crowd left and noticed Amram was next to me. I told him I worked with his sister and he said she mentioned someone she knew was coming, so he was expecting me and looking for me. He said I looked familar. He said, "There are a lot of familiar faces." I made a remark about it taking a lot of people to bury someone. The remark seemed idiotic as soon as I made it.
It wasn't until later, much much later, that I learned that the "unknown woman" who sang Nature Boy was Patti Smith. I didn't recognize her face or voice at the time, only in memory.
Here is David Amram remembering Corso:
Here are tributes to Corso by Ed Sanders and Robert Creeley from the Woodstock Journal: